Denali - Trip Report - Part 8

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Thursday, May 15:

We all were awakened by our guides at about 7:30 AM, and after getting dressed I was the first out of my crammed tent--three of us in one of these tents was really too much. The weather was still unsettled, with clouds hiding the spectacular peaks that surrounded us, but it was certainly good enough for us to move today. We did what soon became the basic morning routine: get over to the cook tent for hot drinks, oatmeal (which I always passed on), and energy bars; get our personal gear organized; and get ready to move out for the day. This morning Barry was not feeling too well, having thrown up all night long, but he still got ready for today's carry like everyone else. The stuff for today's carry was laid out and divided into nine piles, and we got ready to put on our sleds.

After yesterday's single carry we now had all of our gear at 7800'. There were 3 more camps, at roughly 3000' intervals: at 11,000', 14,300', and 17,150'. To get us and our stuff moved up one camp took three days: one day to haul a bunch of food and fuel up to a cache part-way up; a second day to actually move our camp all the way up, including tents, sleeping bags, stoves, and some food; and a third day to drop back down and pick up the cache and bring it back up to the higher camp. Not only did we need the extra trips to haul all the extra food we would need to wait out storms high on the mountain, but such a regimen helped us acclimatize to the high elevations by exposing our bodies to thinner air for a day, then returning low before going up for good. Also, 1000' per day was the recommended gain, and this plan averaged out to exactly that.

So today we were going to make a cache of a whole bunch of food and fuel, plus our high-mountain gear (down clothing, etc.) at about 10,000'. We were put into the same rope teams as yesterday, with I on Steve's rope behind Andy and ahead of Greg W. We set off up Ski Hill, and the steep slopes were a real drag with a heavy sled dragging us backwards. The terrain was rolling, with occasional steeper hills in between less steep sections, and a good path to follow. We all wore snowshoes, and my flimsy ultra-lights did OK, even though I had put them on the wrong feet and they started to flop a bit. Steve set a good pace, and although I could keep up aerobically, I was hot, my snowshoes were a pain, and the sled poles were really jamming into me badly. I gradually let my sled harness drop down almost to my thighs, where it became harder to pull but less painful.

Our rope team left Mike's in the dust, and we really cranked up one steep slope marked by a campsite near the top. It cleared up nicely, too, revealing the spectacular ice cliffs and peaks surrounding the glacier, but also making it pretty hot. I took off my parka at one rest stop, and made the mistake of putting it back on at the next one--shortly after we got going I had to halt the rope team to take it off again, making Steve a little mad. I was also slathering sunblock all over myself when we rested.

We were playing tag as we trudged along with the Mountain Trip group, led by Steve's friend Rodrigo and including Mark Newcomb as an assistant guide. Rodrigo's group shadowed us for the next several days, and our team developed an imaginary rivalry with his as we made fun of his habit of whistling the same tune over and over as he hiked. He was an athletic Chilean who looked very cool and competent, leading a group of mostly novice British climbers. At 3 PM, after cresting yet another rise on the seemingly endless upper Kahiltna, Steve pulled us over, off the trail, and probed an area and reeled us in for our lunch break. First, though, we had to wait for Mike's rope team, and they had somehow fallen 45 minutes behind us--we had a long but relaxing rest until Mike, Luis, Barry, Bill, and Bruno came uphill. Mike blamed himself for the team's slowness, saying that he was feeling out of it, but later it became clear that Barry and Luis were probably at fault, too. We all sat down and ate lunch by passing around the usual bagels, cheese, and other cold food, and while we were finishing up the guides elected to make our cache right where we were, at about 9400'. The plan had been to make it up to near Kahiltna Pass, at 10,000', but the slowness of Mike's team, the late hour, and it being only our second day led the guides to think it would be best no to push too hard.

Photo: Looking down the broad Kahiltna Glacier.

So we dug a deep hole near our resting area and put about 15 heavy food bags in there, several gallons of gasoline, plus several duffel bags full of people's high-mountain clothing. We marked the cache with a ton of wands and a tall three-section piece of PVC pipe, plus some shovels, and then we were back off down to our 7800' camp. With our sleds empty and excellent soft snow for plunge-stepping, we buzzed on downhill effortlessly, especially those on my rope team--I think it took us only about half an hour to get down. The weather had cleared nicely, and we could get a good look at the summit of McKinley once we were down near our camps--snow plumes betrayed the windy conditions 12,000' above us.

I was tired and thirsty when we got back to camp, since I had run out of water. The guides generally took turns cooking, and tonight was Mike's night to make dinner. He melted snow into water in the cook tent for us, then made up some pasta with pesto sauce. This was the staple dinner for us on the mountain (served 2/3 of the nights, I'd say), and I actually liked it a lot. I did not like tomato sauces on my pasta, and I was happy to eat large servings of the pasta with the garlic/pesto type sauces. We all had our individual bowls and mugs, which we kept stored in the cook tent, later in little alcoves we carved out of the snow walls.

It was pretty nice out this evening, so we hung out outside, took pictures, dried out sleeping bags on the roofs of our tents, and otherwise enjoyed a rare pleasant spell. I was sick of sleeping in the tent with three people, so I moved in with Barry, and Andy, Barry's old tentmate, moved in with Bill and Bruno. Barry was feeling kind of sick, but he seemed OK to me, and I was glad to have more space in the tent for all my gear. Tonight was the first really clear night we had on the mountain, so the sun was out until 10 PM or later, and there was still plenty light out at midnight, making it hard to sleep. None of us had brought any headlamps, flashlights, candles or lanterns of any kind, for good reason at 62 degrees north in mid-May.

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